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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 19:01 GMT
Fresh clue to homeopath mystery
test tube and solution
Heavily diluted solutions are used in homeopathic remedies
Many scientists think it is physically impossible for homeopathy to work - but new research suggests how remedies might be having an effect.

Many homeopathic treatments take ingredients and then dilute them in water many times over.

In some cases, it is believed that the more times a remedy is diluted, the more potent it becomes.

This flies in the face of established scientific wisdom, which states that diluting a liquid will weaken its effects.

In fact, it has been calculated that some of the degrees of dilution involved in homeopathy mean there is unlikely to be even a single molecule of the original ingredient still present in a dose.

However, research reported in New Scientist magazine claims to have found a curious phenomenon which might challenge this belief.

It doesn't prove homeopathy, but it's congruent with what we think and is very encouraging

Dr Peter Fisher, Royal London Homeopathic Hospital
A team of chemists from South Korea found that dissolved molecules do not simply spread out in a regular fashion in the solution.

Instead, the team found, they tend to clump together in bigger clusters of molecules - and then as even bigger lumps composed of these clusters.

This would suggest that a heavily diluted homeopathic remedy might by chance contain more of the "active" ingredient than expected.

German chemist Kurt Geckeler, part of the team at the Kwangju Institute of Science of Technology, said: "We want people to confirm it.

"If it's confirmed it will be groundbreaking."

The level of dilution tested by the scientists corresponded only to the more "concentrated" solutions used by homeopaths, perhaps diluted only six-fold rather than to "infinity", as in some preparations.

Dr Peter Fisher, the director of medical research at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, said: "The whole idea of high-dilution homeopathy hangs on the idea that water has properties which are not understood.

"The fact that the new effect happens with a variety of substances suggests it's the solvent that's responsible.

"It doesn't prove homeopathy, but it's congruent with what we think and is very encouraging."

Acid test

However, it is unlikely to convince some of the scientists who are firmly against homeopathy.

This is because clinical trials have so far failed to provide clear evidence that homeopathy can work better than simply giving the patient an ingredient-free placebo.

If it's confirmed it will be groundbreaking

Kurt Geckeler, researcher
Some trials have given homepathy a slight advantage, while others have shown the reverse.

A review of all of these in 1997 slightly favoured homeopathy, but did not find a margin of proof likely to satisfy the majority of doctors that such treatments are worthwhile.

Professor Edzard Ernst, an expert in complementary medicine based at the University of Exeter, said that he hoped that large scale clinical trials could be set up to settle the question once and for all.

He told BBC News Online: "The evidence in my book - as somebody who tries to be between the two groups - is not convincing.

"I think the overall success of homeopathy is comparable with something like non-steroidal anti inflammatory creams - which are sold all over the place.

"The size of any effect they produce is very very small."

Other theories

Other teams have attempted in the past to find some scientific reasoning behind the possible effects of homeopathy.

One oft-quoted theory is the "memory of water" concept, which suggests that even if a solution is so dilute that it is unlikely a molecule of the original ingredient is present, the water itself may retain an "imprint" of it.

This "imprint" might be able to have a physical effect on the body, it was suggested.

This theory was given a little credence by work which suggested that such "imprinting" might take place - although the evidence of this persisted for only a matter of milliseconds.

The research reported in New Scientist was also published in the journal Chemical Communications.

See also:

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